Judge Eric Profancik declares this the best movie about 1920s cabbage farmers that he's seen this year. No, really.
A man is measured by his enemies.
We have an interesting process for distributing DVDs here at the Verdict whereby for each "new" release we request, we need to request an "old" movie that has been sitting in the screener pile a few weeks. My spin on this process is that I take potluck on the older titles in hopes that something interesting will come my way. When I saw Bitter Harvest on my personal docket, I was very excited, for it stars two excellent actors, Colm Meaney and Cillian Murphy. Many of you have probably heard of these two men, especially the latter chap, who is currently a rising star. Yes, Mr. Murphy is the man who played Dr. Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins, and so begins his rise to fame and fortune in Hollywood. Meaney, on the other hand, will probably never get a sliver of the fame already bestowed upon Murphy, for he's a bit of a niche actor. He's had many great supporting roles over the years in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, Mystery, Alaska, Layer Cake, and my personal favorite, Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Both of these men are excellent actors, and if you want to see a sampling of their fine skills, then look no further than Bitter Harvest.
Once known as How Harry Became a Tree (don't ask me, because I don't quite get it), this movie is set in 1924 in Skillet, Ireland, where Harry (Meaney) and his son Gus (Murphy) live on the edge of town, farming cabbages. Some time back, Harry's older son was killed in a war, and soon thereafter his wife died of a broken heart. This has left a great void in Harry, who has become a bit eccentric since his terrible loss. Gus, a handsome, kind, but slightly slow lad, loves his father and dutifully follows his commands. Harry has finally figured out what to do with his life; he's decided he needs an enemy, for a man is measured by his enemies. He decides to pick the town's matchmaker (marriage broker), George. Everyone in town knows Harry is getting more irrational with age, but they all just take it in stride, including George. In fact, George doesn't think much of it at all and offers his services to Gus; for he's brought a beautiful young woman, Eileen, to town. George thinks she would be the perfect wife to Gus. But Harry won't have any of that, and he forbids Gus to have anything to do with Eileen. Gus doesn't want to listen to his father this time because he's smitten with Eileen, and this forces Harry to confront his enemy. With some arm twisting, Harry lets George arrange the marriage between Gus and Eileen. With Gus married and still living under Harry's roof, Harry goes even further over the edge. His hatred of George grows by the day, because he's now indebted to the man for services rendered. Harry begins to plot ways to destroy his enemy, but it doesn't work out as he hopes. Soon a tragic tale of love and family erupts between Harry, Gus, Eileen, and George. Will Skillet ever be the same?
In all truth, the plot of Bitter Harvest, which is based on the book Lao Dan, is fairly simple and familiar. What sets this movie apart is watching how Harry unravels as his son falls in love, how he tries to deal with his anger toward George, and how Gus grows as his love for Eileen deepens. There is a major story subplot that I have not mentioned, which truly kick-starts the emotional journey for all of our characters. I do have to admit that I was confused about the motivation of some of the people involved in this event, and I think that confusion stopped me from getting everything out of the movie that I could. I came away from Bitter Harvest saddened for Harry, who ended up being his own worst enemy.
I want to mention again the acting of Meaney and Murphy in this movie. It is exceptional. I've seen much of Meaney's work over time, and this is a bravura performance by this man; I don't believe I have seen him do anything better. This holds true for Murphy, too, who portrays the slow son with amazing depth, understanding, and compassion. These two characters are made so much more because of the two actors, and they are the only true reason to see this film.
Beautifully shot and directed, Bitter Harvest looks excellent on DVD. Since I could not locate the exact technical specifications for the film, it is my deduction that the disc contains a 2.35:1 anamorphic print. This print is at times stunning in its realism, but at other times it stumbles. For example, the film opens in a rainstorm and you can see every drop of water beading on Harry's jacket; later on, there's a night scene in which grain explodes from the screen. The colors are muted but accurate, details are mostly good, and outside of said grain, there are no major errors. Audio is either a Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 stereo mix, and both are about equal in sound for this dialogue-intensive film, with dialogue presented free of any hiss or distortion. The disc has no subtitles, which would have helped me on occasion with the heavy Irish brogue. Outside of trailers for Bitter Harvest, Daddy Who?, and Sorted, this is a bare-bones release.
If you're looking for a pleasant film with some strong acting, or if you're already a fan of these actors' work, then you're encouraged to pick up Bitter Harvest.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Ardustry Home Entertainment
• Trailers for Bitter Harvest, Daddy Who?, and Sorted
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